Thursday, July 30, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt sixteen)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Everything in Alexander Hamilton’s life pointed to the fact that he would not dodge a duel or negotiate a compromise. He was incapable of turning the other cheek. With his checkered West Indian background, he had predicated his career on fiercely defending his honor. No impulse was more deeply rooted in his nature. This outspoken man was always armed for battle and vigilant in deflecting attacks on his integrity. On six occasions, Hamilton had been involved in the duel preliminaries that formed part of affairs of honor, and three times he had been attached to duels as a second or an adviser. Yet he had never actually been the principal in a duel. His editor, Harold C. Syrett, has observed that, until the summer of 1804, Hamilton “was obsessed with dueling in the abstract, but not with duels in fact.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt fifteen)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

The 1800 triumph of Republicanism also meant the ascendancy of the slaveholding south. Three Virginia slaveholders—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—were to control the White House for the next twenty-four years. These aristocratic exponents of “democracy” not only owned hundreds of human beings but profited from the Constitution’s least democratic features: the legality of slavery and the ability of southern states to count three-fifths of their captive populations in calculating their electoral votes. (Without this so-called federal ratio, John Adams would have defeated Thomas Jefferson in 1800.) The Constitution did more than just tolerate slavery: it actively rewarded it. Timothy Pickering was to inveigh against “Negro presidents and Negro congresses”—that is, presidents and congresses who owed their power to the three-fifths rule. This bias inflated southern power against the north and disfigured the democracy so proudly proclaimed by the Jeffersonians. Slaveholding presidents from the south occupied the presidency for approximately fifty of the seventy-two years following Washington’s first inauguration. Many of these slaveholding populists were celebrated by posterity as tribunes of the common people. Meanwhile, the self-made Hamilton, a fervent abolitionist and a staunch believer in meritocracy, was villainized in American history textbooks as an apologist of privilege and wealth.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt fourteen)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

In writing an intemperate indictment of John Adams, Hamilton committed a form of political suicide that blighted the rest of his career. As shown with “The Reynolds Pamphlet,” he had a genius for the self-inflicted wound and was capable of marching blindly off a cliff—traits most pronounced in the late 1790s. Gouverneur Morris once commented that one of Hamilton’s chief characteristics was “the pertinacious adherence to opinions he had once formed.”

Hamilton found it hard to refrain from vendettas. He would be devoured by dislike of someone, brood about it, then yield to the catharsis of discharging his venom in print. “The frankness of his nature was such that he could not easily avoid the expression of his sentiments of public men and measures and his extreme candor in such cases was sometimes productive of personal inconveniences,” observed friend Nathaniel Pendleton. Even Eliza in after years conceded that her adored husband had “a character perhaps too frank and independent for a democratic people.”

Monday, July 27, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt thirteen)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Whatever his disappointments, Hamilton, forty, must have left Philadelphia with an immense feeling of accomplishment. The Whiskey Rebellion had been suppressed, the country’s finances flourished, and the investigation into his affairs had ended with a ringing exoneration. He had prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored—whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard—despite years of complaints and bitter smears. John Quincy Adams later stated that his financial system “operated like enchantment for the restoration of public credit.” Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation. He had laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of the president from passive administrator to active policy maker, creating the institutional scaffolding for America’s future emergence as a great power. He had demonstrated the creative uses of government and helped to weld the states irreversibly into one nation. He had also defended Washington’s administration more brilliantly than anyone else, articulating its constitutional underpinnings and enunciating key tenets of foreign policy. “We look in vain for a man who, in an equal space of time, has produced such direct and lasting effects upon our institutions and history,” Henry Cabot Lodge was to contend. Hamilton’s achievements were never matched because he was present at the government’s inception, when he could draw freely on a blank state. If Washington was the father of the country and Madison the father of the Constitution, then Alexander Hamilton was surely the father of the American government.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt twelve)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

When they learned of Hamilton’s illness, George and Martha Washington sent sympathy notes and six bottles of vintage wine. “With extreme concern, I receive the expression of your apprehensions that you are in the first stages of the prevailing fever,” the president wrote to Hamilton. Quite different was the response of Thomas Jefferson, who wrote a misguided letter to Madison that accused Hamilton of cowardice, hypochondria, and fakery: “His family think him in danger and he puts himself so by his excessive alarm. He had been miserable several days before from a firm persuasion he should catch it. A man as timid as he is on the water, as timid on horseback, as timid in sickness, would be a phenomenon if his courage, of which he has the reputation in military occasions, were genuine. His friends, who have not seen him, suspect it is only an autumnal fever he has.” At one stroke, Jefferson heaped heartless abuse on a sick man and inverted reality. Not only did Hamilton have yellow fever, but he had shown outstanding valor during the Revolution while Jefferson, as Virginia governor, had cravenly fled into the woods before the advancing British troops.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt eleven)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Early on, Hamilton and Coxe settled on New Jersey as the optimal place for this venture. The state was densely populated, possessed cheap land and abundant forests, and enjoyed easy access to New York money. Most critically, it was well watered by rivers that could spin turbine blades and waterwheels. That August, Hamilton dispatched scouts to investigate these waterways. He and other society members were swamped with appeals from local landlords, touting the wonders of their riverside properties. It was later on concluded, largely at Duer’s insistence, that the Great Falls of the Passaic in northern New Jersey offered “one of the finest situations in the world.”

Hamilton knew the secluded spot well. One day during the Revolution, he, Washington, and Lafayette had picnicked by the falls, enjoying a “modest repast” of cold ham, tongue, and biscuits in a sylvan setting that momentarily banished thoughts of war. The Great Falls mark a scenic bend in the Passaic River, the foaming water—up to two billion gallons per day—plunging seventy feet into a deep, narrow gorge of brownish-black basalt, blowing a rainbow-forming spray into the air. The society decided to call the new town Paterson to flatter Governor William Paterson. On November 22, 1791, the governor returned the favor, granting the society a charter (likely written by Hamilton) that gave it monopoly status and a ten-year tax exemption. The society bought seven hundred acres and carved it up into parcels, not just for factories but for a brand-new town—one that became the third largest city in New Jersey.

Friday, July 24, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt ten)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

As with any speculative bubble, it is hard to pin down the elusive moment when reasonable confidence in bank scrip bloomed into euphoria. As late as July 31, Fisher Ames wrote to Hamilton from Boston, praising the bank subscription: “People here are full of exultation and gratitude.” Then, in early August, prices soared upward in a vertical line. On August 8, Madison expressed shock to Jefferson: “The stock-jobbers will become the praetorian head of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant, bribed by its largesses and overawing it by clamours and combinations.” Jefferson brooded about the harm to America’s moral fiber: “The spirit of gaming, once it has seized a subject, is incurable. The tailor who has made thousands in one day, tho[ugh] he had lost them the next, can never again be content with the slow and moderate earnings of his needed.” Benjamin Rush reported the same money-mad bustle in Philadelphia. Everybody from merchants to clerks was forsaking everyday duties to wager on scrip: “The city of Philadelphia for several days has exhibited the marks of a great gaming house…. Never did I see so universal a frenzy. Nothing else was spoken of but scrip in all companies, even by those who were not interested in it.” Senator Rufus King later told Hamilton that New York City’s economy had ground to a halt as people rushed off to gamble in bank shares: “The business was going on in a most alarming manner, mechanics deserting their shops, shopkeepers sending their goods to auction, and not a few of our merchants neglecting the regular and profitable commerce of the City.”

Finally, on August 11, 1791, came the first crash in government securities in American history. Bank scrip that had gone on sale for twenty-five dollars just over a month earlier had zoomed to more than three hundred dollars. The bubble was pricked when bankers refused to extend more credit to leading speculators. Then bears began to sell, and shares nose-dived. As the chief financial regulator, this market turbulence thrust Hamilton into a ticklish situation. He had no precedents to guide him. As a rule, he tried not to interfere with markets and thought it improper to register opinions on the value of government securities. But he also believed he had an obligation to protect the financial system, and so he improvised as he went along. On August 15, Rufus King informed Hamilton that speculators attempting to depress bank shares were quoting Hamilton’s opinion that scrip was grossly overvalued: “They go further and mention prices below the present market as the value sanctioned by your authority.”

Thursday, July 23, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt nine)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

The American Revolution and its aftermath coincided with two great transformations in the late eighteenth century. In the political sphere, there had been a repudiation of royal rule, fired by a new respect for individual freedom, majority rule, and limited government. If Hamilton made distinguished contributions in the sphere, so did Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. In contrast, when it came to the parallel economic upheavals of the period—the industrial revolution, the expansion of global trade, the growth of banks and stock exchanges—Hamilton was an American prophet without peer. No other founding father straddled both of these revolutions—only Franklin even came close—and therein lay Hamilton’s novelty and greatness. He was the clear-eyed apostle of America’s economic future, setting forth a vision that many found enthralling, others unsettling, but that would ultimately prevail. He stood squarely on the modern side of a historical divide that seemed to separate him from other founders. Small wonder he aroused such fear and confusion.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt eight)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Hamilton may have believed that Jefferson’s contributions to the nation paled beside his own and not just because of his own work on behalf of the Constitution. Besides handling Washington’s correspondence, Hamilton had spent five years in combat, exposing himself to enemy fire on many occasions. Jefferson had never set foot on a battlefield. Elected Virginia governor in 1779, he found the job irksome and wanted to resign, prompting Edmund Pendleton to complain to Madison, “It is a little cowardly to quit our posts in a bustling time!” When the turncoat Benedict Arnold burned and pillaged Richmond in January 1781, the capital stood defenseless despite warnings from Washington to Jefferson. Governor Jefferson fled in the early hours, giving up Richmond without a shot and allowing munitions and government records to fall into British hands. In June, in Jefferson’s waning hours as governor, the British pounced on Charlottesville and almost captured the Virginia Assembly gathered there. Then, when word came that a British cavalry was approaching Monticello, Jefferson scrambled off on horseback into the woods. He was accused of dereliction of duty and neglecting the transfer of power to his successor. Though the Virginia Assembly exonerated him of any wrongdoing, Hamilton wasn’t the only one who suspected Jefferson of cowardice. He later wrote mockingly that when real danger appeared, “the governor of the ancient dominion dwindled into the poor, timid philosopher and, instead of rallying his brave countrymen, he fled safety from a few light-horsemen and shamefully abandoned his trust!”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, exerpt seven)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

The bipartisan decision to shelve the slavery issue had profound repercussions for Hamilton’s economic measures, for it spared the southern economy from criticism. In the 1790s, America’s critical energies were trained exclusively on the northern economy and the financial and manufacturing system devised by Hamilton. This became immediately apparent in the heated debate over his funding system, which allowed southern slaveholders to proclaim that northern financiers were the evil ones and that slaveholders were the virtuous populists, upright men of the soil. It was testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton’s system as the paramount embodiment of evil. They inveighed against the concentrated wealth of northern merchants when southern slave plantations clearly represented the most heinous form of concentrated wealth. Throughout the 1790s, planters posed as the tribunes of small farmers and denounced the depravity of stocks, bonds, banks, and manufacturing—the whole wicked apparatus of Hamiltonian capitalism.

Monday, July 20, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt six)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

For those who knew Hamilton, his generally passive behavior during the first three weeks was mystifying. He had never been known to hug the sidelines. As the convention split over the Virginia and New Jersey plans, Hamilton stayed conspicuously aloof from both camps. Robert Yates noted on June 15, “Col. Hamilton cannot say he is in sentiment with either plan.” Madison recorded Hamilton as saying that he had been self-effacing partly because he did not wish to dissent from those “whose superior abilities, age, and experience rendered him unwilling to bring forward ideas dissimilar to theirs” and partly owing to the split in his delegation.

It was predictable that when the wordy Hamilton broke silence, he would do so at epic length. Faced with a deadlock between large and small states, he decided to broach a more radical plan. On Monday morning, June 18, the thirty-two-year-old prodigy rose first on the convention floor and in the stifling, poorly ventilated room he spoke and spoke and spoke. Before the day was through, he had given a six-hour speech (no break for lunch) that was brilliant, courageous, and, in retrospect, completely daft. He admitted to the assembly that he would adumbrate a plan that did not reflect popular opinion. “My situation is disagreeable,” he admitted, “but it would be criminal not to come forward on a question of such magnitude.” He said people were tiring in their enthusiasm for “democracy,” by which he meant direct representation or even mob rule, as opposed to public opinion filtered through educated representatives. “And what even is the Virginia Plan,” he asked, “but democracy checked democracy, or pork with a little change of the sauce?” Of all the founders, Hamilton probably had the gravest doubts about the wisdom of the masses and wanted elected leaders who would guide them. This was the great paradox of his career: his optimistic view of America’s potential coexisted with an essentially pessimistic view of human nature. His faith in Americans never quite matched his faith in America itself.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt five)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

At noon on December 14, 1780, Alexander Hamilton, twenty-five, wed Elizabeth Schuyler, twenty-three, in the southeast parlor of the Schuyler mansion. The interior of the two-story brick residence was light and airy and had a magnificent curving staircase with beautifully carved balusters. During the ceremony, the parlor was likely radiant with sunshine reflected from the snow outside. The ceremony followed the Dutch custom of a small family wedding in the bride’s home. At the local Dutch Reformed Church, the clerk recorded simply: “Colonel Hamilton & Elisabeth [sic] Schuyler.” After the ceremony, the guests probably adjourned to the entrance hall, which was nearly fifty feet long and twenty feet wide and flanked by tall, graceful windows. Except for James McHenry, Hamilton’s friends on Washington’s staff were too busy with wartime duties to attend. For all the merriment and high spirits, few guests could have overlooked the mortifying contrast between the enormous Schuyler clan with their Van Cortlandt and Van Rensselaer relatives, and the lonely groom, who didn’t have a single family member in attendance.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt four)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

In early December, Lee heaped further abuse upon Washington in print, and John Laurens urged Hamilton to rebut it. “The pen of Junius is in your hand and I think you will, without difficulty, expose…such a tissue of falsehood and inconsistency as will satisfy the world and put him forever to silence.” Perhaps because he was a party to the dispute, Hamilton, in a rare act of reticence, declined to lift his pen. Instead, Laurens challenged Lee to a duel to avenge the slurs against Washington. Hamilton agreed to serve as his second, the first of many such “affairs of honor” in which he participated.

Dueling was so prevalent in the Continental Army that one French visitor declared, “The rage for dueling here has reached an incredible and scandalous point.” It was a way that gentlemen could defend their sense of honor: instead of resorting to courts if insulted, they repaired to the dueling ground. This anachronistic practice expressed a craving for rank and distinction that lurked beneath the egalitarian rhetoric of the American Revolution. Always insecure about his status in the world, Hamilton was a natural adherent to dueling, with its patrician overtones. Lacking a fortune or family connections, he guarded his reputation jealously throughout his life, and affairs of honor were often his preferred method of doing so. The man born without honor placed a premium on maintaining his.

Friday, July 17, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt three)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

In the late spring of 1777, Hamilton began the most intimate friendship of his life, with an elegant, blue-eyes young officer named John Laurens, who formally joined Washington’s family in October. One portrait of Laurens shows a short, commanding figure in a pose of supreme assurance, with one arm akimbo and the other resting on the hilt of a long, curved sword. He was the son of one of South Carolina’s most influential planters, Henry Laurens, who succeeded John Hancock as president of the Continental Congress that November. Hamilton and Laurens, both French Huguenot on one side of their families and English on the other, seemed like kindred spirits, spiritual twins. Both were bookish and ambitious, bold and enterprising, and hungered for military honor. Both were imbued with a quixotic sense that it was noble to die in a worthy cause. Like Hamilton, Laurens was so sure of himself that he could seem brusquely overbearing to those who disagreed with him. More than any friend Hamilton ever had, Laurens was his peer, and the two were long paired in the fond memories of many who fought in the Revolution.

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, a few months before Hamilton was born in Nevis, Laurens had a privileged upbringing on one of the state’s biggest slave plantations. In 1771, while Hamilton toiled away as a clerk in St. Croix, Laurens’s father enrolled him in a cosmopolitan school in Geneva, Switzerland. He was a versatile, accomplished student, who excelled in the classics, fenced, drew, and rode. While breathing in the republican atmosphere of Geneva, he prepared to become a barrister. In 1774, he studied law at the Middle Temple in London. This was a time of antislavery ferment, spurred by Lord Mansfield’s legal decision that a slave became free by being brought to England. Laurens became a passionate convert to abolitionism, which was to create a strong ideological bond with Hamilton.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt two)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Elizabethtown, New Jersey—today plain Elizabeth—was chartered by George II and ranked as the colony’s oldest English community. It was a small, idyllic village graced with orchards, two churches, a stone bridge arching over the Elizabeth River, and windmills dispersed among the salt meadows outside of town. Located on the grounds of the Presbyterian church, the Elizabethtown Academy occupied a two-story building topped by a cupola. Its headmaster, Francis Barber, was a recent graduate of the College of New Jersey (henceforth called Princeton, its much later name) and was only five years older than Hamilton. He was a dashing figure, with a high forehead, heavy eyebrows, and a small, prim mouth. Steeped in the classic and with reform-minded political sympathies, he was in many ways an ideal preceptor for Hamilton. He would see combat duty on the patriotic side during the revolution and would find himself at Yorktown, in a startling inversion, under the direct command of his West Indian pupil.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

the last book I ever read (Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, excerpt one)

from Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow:

Violence was commonplace in Nevis, as in all the slave-ridden sugar islands. The eight thousand captive blacks easily dwarfed in number the one thousand whites, “a disproportion,” remarked one visitor, “which necessarily converts all such white men as are not exempted by age and decrepitude into a well-regulated militia.” Charlestown was a compact town of narrow, crooked lanes and wooden buildings, and Hamilton would regularly have passed the slave-auction blocks at Market Shop and Crosses Alley and beheld barbarous whippings in the public square. The Caribbean sugar economy was a system of inimitable savagery, making the tobacco and cotton plantations of the American south seem almost genteel by comparison. The mortality rate of slaves hacking away at sugarcane under a pitiless tropical sun was simply staggering: three out of five died within five years of arrival, and slave owners needed to replenish their fields constantly with fresh victims. One Nevis planter, Edward Huggins, set a sinister record when he administered 365 lashes to a male slave and 292 to a female. Evidently unfazed by this sadism, a local jury acquitted him of all wrongdoing. A decorous British lady who visited St. Kitts stared aghast at naked male and female slaves being drive along dusty roads by overseers who flogged them at regular intervals, as if they needed steady reminders of their servitude: “Every ten Negroes have a driver who walks behind them, holding in his hand a short whip and a long one…and you constantly observe where the application has been made.” Another British visitor said that “if a white man kills a black, he cannot be tried for his life for the murder…. If a negro strikes a whiteman, he is punished with the loss of his hand and, if he should draw blood, with death.” Island life contained enough bloodcurdling scenes to darken Hamilton’s vision for life, instilling an ineradicable pessimism about human nature that infused all his writing.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt ten)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

When he went out, the sun seemed even stronger. He walked slowly toward his house, and on the way only two strangers approached to greet him. He thought, with some relief, that gradually he’d stop being famous and well known. People would forget about the spider, and soon they’d stop pointing him out and coming up to him. Perhaps the day wasn’t distant when he’d be able to walk down the streets of the city again like an anonymous pedestrian.

Monday, July 13, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt nine)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

Their truest form of communication was qiqong. At first Felícito began to imitate the movements as if he were playing, but Lau didn’t take it as a joke, encouraged him to persevere, and became his teacher—a patient, amiable, understanding teacher, who accompanied each of his movements and postures with explanations in rudimentary Spanish that Felícito could barely understand. But gradually he let himself be infected by Lau’s example and began to do sessions of qiqong not only when he visited the grocery but also in the widow’s boardinghouse and during the stops he made on his trips. He liked it. It did him good. It calmed him when he was nervous and gave him the energy and control to undertake the challenges of the day. It helped him find his center.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt eight)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

After her last words, Gertrudis stood with an agility Felícito didn’t remember her possessing and shuffled out of the room. He remained seated in the television room, not hearing the noises, the voices, the horns, the bustle of Calle Arequipa, or the motortaxi engines, sunk in a dense lethargy, a despair and sadness that didn’t let him think and deprived him of even the energy needed to get to his feet. He wanted to, he wanted to leave this house even though as soon as he walked outside the reporters would be all over him with their relentless questions, each one stupider than the last, he wanted to go to the Eguiguren Seawalk and sit down to watch the brown-and-gray river water, watch the clouds in the sky, breathe in the warm afternoon, listen to the birds calling. But he didn’t try to move because his legs weren’t going to obey him, or vertigo would knock him to the carpet. It horrified him to think that his father, from the next life, might have heard the conversation he’d just had with his wife.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt seven)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

“It’s just that there’s something I don’t understand,” Fonchito ventured uncomfortably. “About you, Papa. You always liked art, painting, music, books. It’s the only thing you seem passionate about. So, then, why did you become a lawyer? Why did you spend your whole life working in an insurance company? You should have been a painter, a musician, well, I don’t know. Why didn’t you follow your calling?”

Don Rigoberto nodded and reflected a moment before answering.

“Because I was a coward, son,” he finally murmured. “Because I lacked faith in myself. I never believed I had the talent to be a real artist. But maybe that was an excuse for not trying. I decided not to be a creator but only a consumer of art, a dilettante of culture. Because I was a coward is the sad truth. So now you know. Don’t follow my example. Whatever your calling is, follow it as far as you can and don’t do what I did, don’t betray it.”

Friday, July 10, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt six)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

“We’re getting into deep waters,” exclaimed Don Rigoberto. “I’m not an atheist, an atheist is also a believer. He believes that God doesn’t exist, isn’t that so? I’m more of an agnostic, if I’m anything. Someone who declares that he’s perplexed, incapable of believing either that God exists or that God doesn’t exist.”

“Neither fish nor fowl,” said Fonchito with a laugh. “It’s a very convenient way to avoid the problem, Papa.”

Thursday, July 9, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt five)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

Father O’Donovan must have been the only cleric who traveled through greater Lima not by bus or jitney but on a bicycle. He said it was his only exercise, but he did it so regularly that it kept him in excellent physical condition. Besides, he liked to pedal. He would think as he rode, preparing his sermons, composing letters, scheduling the day’s tasks. True, he had to be constantly on the alert, especially at intersections and at the traffic lights that no one in this city respected, and where motorists drove as if trying to knock down pedestrians and cyclists instead of bringing their vehicle safely home. Even so, he’d been lucky: In the more than twenty years that he’d been traveling all over the city on two wheels, he’d been hit only once, with no serious consequences, and only one bicycle had been stolen. An excellent record!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt four)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

Pepín had never been one of those overly pious boys who took communion at every Mass at school, the ones the priests flattered and tried to convince that they had a vocation, that God had chosen them for the priesthood. He was the most normal boy in the world, athletic, fond of parties, mischievous, and for a time he’d even had a girlfriend, Julieta Mayer, a freckled volleyball player who studied at the Academy of Santa Úrsula. He fulfilled his obligations by going to Mass, like all the students at La Recoleta, and he’d been a fairly diligent member of Acción Católica, but as far as Rigoberto could recall, no more devout than the others and not especially interested in the talks dedicated to religious vocations. He didn’t even attend the retreats the priests organized from time to time at a country house they had in Chosica. No, it wasn’t a joke but an irreversible decision. He’d felt the call from the time he was a boy and had thought it over carefully, not telling anyone before deciding to take the big step. Now there was no going back. That same night he left for Chile. The next time they saw each other, it was many years later: Pepín was already Father O’Donovan, dressed as a priest, wearing eyeglasses, prematurely bald, and beginning his career as a die-hard cyclist. He was still a simple, amiable person, so that every time they saw each other it had become a kind of running joke for Rigoberto to tell him: “Good to know you haven’t changed, Pepín, just as well that even though you are one, you don’t seem like a priest.” To which Pepín always responded by teasing Rigoberto with the nickname of his youth: “And those donkey’s accessories of yours are still growing, Ears. Why is that, I wonder?”

“It’s not about me,” Rigoberto explained, “it’s Fonchito. Lucrecia and I don’t know what to do with the boy, Pepín. He’s turning our hair gray, honestly.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt three)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

“Could you tell me what this Sodom and Gomorrah is, Papa?” Fonchito asked, and Rigoberto noticed a sly gleam in his eyes.

“Two ancient cities, very corrupt, and because they were, God destroyed them,” he replied cautiously. “It’s what believers believe, at least. You have to read the Bible a little, son. For your general education. At least the New Testament. The world we live in is filled with biblical references, and if you don’t understand them, you’ll live in total confusion and ignorance. For example, you won’t understand anything of classical art or ancient history. Are you sure he said he knew Lucrecia and me?”

“And my mama too,” Fonchito specified. “He even said her name: Eloísa. He said it in a way that made it impossible not to believe he was telling the truth, Papa.”

Monday, July 6, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt two)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

“I’m no hero and don’t want to be one,” Colorado Vignolo replied in a quiet voice. “So yes, I am telling you. I pay them a small amount every month. And though I can’t prove it, I can tell you that all or almost all the transport companies in Piura make those payments too. It’s what you should have done instead of being reckless and confronting them. We all thought you were paying too, Felícito. What a foolish thing you’ve done. I can’t understand it and none of our colleagues can either. Have you lost your mind? My friend, you don’t get into fights you can’t win.”

Sunday, July 5, 2015

the last book I ever read (The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, excerpt one)

from The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa:

They’d attended the best school in Lima, had private tutors for the course in which they were weak, gone to summer school in the United States and England. They learned English but spoke an illiterate Spanish full of the awful slang and dropped endings of Lima’s young people, hadn’t read a book or even a newspaper in their entire lives, probably didn’t know the capital of half the countries in Latin America, and neither one had been able to pass even the first year at the university. They’d made their debut as villains while still adolescents, raping a girl they picked up at a run-of-the-mill party in Pucusana. Floralisa Roca, that was her name, a name right out of a novel of chivalry. Slim, rather pretty, with terrified, tear-filled eyes, her thin body trembling with fear. Rigoberto remembered her clearly. She was on his conscience, and he still felt remorse for the ugly role he’d had to play in the matter. The whole imbroglio came back to him: lawyers, doctors, police reports, desperate measures to keep the names of the twins out of the articles about the incident in La Prensa and El Comercio. He’d had to speak to the girl’s parents, an Ican couple already along in years, and it cost close to $50,000, a fortune at the time, to placate and silence them. He remembered very clearly the conversation he had one day with Ismael. His boss pressed his hands to his head, held back his tears while his voice broke: “How have we failed, Rigoberto? What did Clotilde and I do to have God punish us like this? How can we have these thugs for sons! They’re not even sorry for the outrage they committed. Can you imagine? They blame the poor girl. They not only raped her, they hit and abused her.” “Thugs,” that was the word exactly. Perhaps Clotilde and Ismael had spoiled them too much, perhaps they hadn’t been strict enough. They shouldn’t have always excused their escapades, not so quickly, at any rate. The twins’ escapades! Car crashes caused by driving drunk and drugged, debts incurred using their father’s name, forged receipts at the office when Ismael had the bad idea of placing them in the company to toughen them up. They’d been a nightmare for Rigoberto. He had to go in person to inform his boss about the brothers’ exploits. They even emptied the petty cash box in his office. That was the last straw, fortunately. Ismael let them go, preferring to give them an allowance to finance the idleness. Their record was endless. For example, they enrolled at Boston University and their parents were ecstatic. Months later, Ismael discovered they’d never set foot in BU, had pocketed their tuition and allowance, and forged their grades and attendance reports. One of them—Miki or Escobita?—ran over a pedestrian in Miami and was a fugitive because he fled to Lima while out on bail. If he ever returned to the United States, he’d go to prison.

Friday, July 3, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt twelve)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

This early artistic preoccupation with mortality might have been expected given my father’s influence and the art and artifacts of death throughout the house, but still I am surprised, going through my old negatives, to find such clear evidence of it so early on. Now I realize that I misspoke in 2003 during the What Remains exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, when I repeatedly asserted that my photographic exploration of death had begun when my first greyhound, Eva, dropped dead. Clearly I hadn’t taken a look at my old contact sheets, where it is abundantly evident. However, Eva’s death definitely revived it, kicking it into high gear.

She died on Valentine’s Day, 1999, five years to the day after I bought her from a man who had smashed her pelvis by slamming a stall door on her. She was pathetically needy, annoying, and stupid, and I adored her. A graceful creature, despite her injuries, she dropped dead doing what she loved beast: running across the hoary fields one early morning at the farm. Larry carried her to the barn and laid her on a plank, where she froze solid.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt eleven)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

Nothing is deader, or more ungainly, than a dead body. Dead weight is right. The pitch of the hill steepened, and the men were stumbling and sobbing behind us. Periodically Shelby’s legs would be ripped out of our arms as one of the other of the men lost his grip, both emotionally and physically. Shelby’s shoulder would sag heavily to the ground, the man supposed to be supporting it weeping against the chest sutures. Shelby had been allotted a berth alongside the fence at the very top of the hill and as we approached it the two friends, hooking a baseball cap on the bouncing testicles for the last time, lowered their end of Shelby and peeled off into the woods, leaving us holding the legs. Sighing, we reversed ends and each of us wrapped our arms around Shelby’s clammy torso in an unsettlingly intimate embrace. At the count of three, we hefted him upright, his naked body pressed against us, and man-hauled him to his weedy little plot. At a second count of three, we both released and Shelby folded to the ground, his head making a sickening melon-y sound.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

the last book I ever read (Sally Mann's Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, excerpt ten)

from Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann:

The trip to Florida happened long before I even had my learner’s permit, and we made it in his brand-new car, a creamy white Aston Martin DB-4. He had picked it up in England along with an orange marmalade appeasement for my irate mother and a blue Pringle cashmere sweater for me that was so soft it invited my grade school teachers to pet me like an animal.

The purchase of the Aston caused a significant disruption in my parents’ marriage, which a friend once likened to a building in which a crucial foundation stone was really two powerful magnets with the wrong ends pressed together, the marital edifice held together by the pressure of the surrounding brickwork: the family, the land. My frugal mother objected to the expense, the ostentation, and the unilateral nature of the purchase, and my father’s response to her upset was to ignore it. When my mother pressed home to him the financial consequences of buying such a car, his solution was to noisily replace the two measured ounces of good whiskey he drank every evening with tall glasses of weak iced tea. By his arithmetic if he did that for the rest of his statistically probable life, he would pay for his half of the car. My mother gave up.